SS7 Chapter 08 Notes: The Constitution

Section 1: Principles of the Constitution (p. 206-211)

Our Constitution

The United States Constitution sets up our country’s government. It is based on seven main ideas:

  • popular sovereignty
  • a republican form of government
  • limited government
  • federalism
  • separation of powers
  • checks and balances
  • individual rights

The Constitution begins with the words “We the People” which means that the people have the right to govern themselves. The idea that the people control the powers of government is known as popular sovereignty.

The Constitution sets up a system of government in which the people rule by electing, or choosing, representatives. This is called a republic. The elected representatives (politicians) make laws and carry out other government functions for all the people.

The people who wrote the Constitution knew the United States needed a strong government but also knew it was important to limit the power of the government. Otherwise, the government might take away people’s rights or favor certain groups. To avoid this, the Constitution sets up a limited government, which means that the government’s powers are clearly defined. A limited government has only the powers that the people give it.

The Constitution also divides power between the state governments and the national, or federal, government. This system is called federalism. Under the Constitution, the federal government has some powers, and the states have other powers. Certain powers are shared by both the federal and the state governments.

Powers that belong to the federal government are called enumerated powers (include coining money, regulating interstate commerce/foreign trade, maintaining armed forces, and creating federal courts).

All powers not given to the federal government are kept by the states. These are called reserved powers (include setting up schools, creating marriage/divorce laws, and controlling trade inside the state).

Sometimes, the federal government and the states share a power. These shared powers are called concurrent powers. However, sometimes there is a conflict between a federal law and a state law. The Constitution makes federal law the “supreme Law of the Land.” In the event of a conflict, federal law will win over state law.

The Constitution also includes rules to make sure that no person or group gets too much power. One rule is called the separation of powers. This refers to the way the Constitution divides powers among three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial. Each branch has a different role.

Another constitutional protection comes from a system of checks and balances. This means each branch can prevent the other branches from becoming too powerful. Each branch is given certain powers that can limit the other branches.

The Constitution also protects individual rights. These rights are the basic freedoms that Americans enjoy every day. The Bill of Rights, which is the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, lists many of these important freedoms. These include freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the right to a speedy and public trial, and freedom from “cruel and unusual” punishment.

Amending the Constitution

The Constitution can be amended, or changed. One part of the Constitution describes the process for amending the document. As a result, the Constitution can be updated as time passes and society changes.

It takes two steps to amend the Constitution. In the first step, Congress or the states—either one—can propose, or suggest, an amendment. In the second step, the states ratify, or approve, the amendment. Three-fourths of the states must approve the amendment in order for it to become part of the Constitution.

It is not easy to amend the Constitution. Even though people have proposed hundreds of amendments, only 27 have been ratified.

Among those 27, there have been many important amendments. Some of them have given more people the right to vote. For example, the Fifteenth Amendment said that African American men can vote. The Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote. The Twenty-Sixth Amendment changed the voting age to 18.

The Constitution can also change in another way. Its words can be interpreted, or understood, in different ways. For example, one section says that Congress may “make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper” to carry out its duties. Another allows Congress to “regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States.” These clauses give Congress implied powers – powers that are suggested even though they are not stated clearly.


Section 2: Government and the People (p. 212-215)

The Federal Government

The federal government is divided into three branches which ensures a separation of powers:

  • legislative
  • executive
  • judicial

The legislative branch is called Congress. Article I of the Constitution describes what Congress does. Congress makes laws for the nation. These laws can create taxes, permit government spending, and set up government programs. Congress can also declare war.

Congress is made up of two houses: the House of Representatives and the Senate. In order for a bill to become a law, most of the members from both houses must agree on the bill. After that, the bill goes to the president and if the president signs it, the bill becomes a law.

The House of Representatives is the larger house of Congress. The number of representatives that a state sends to the House is based on its population. States that have more people have more representatives. When the population of a state goes up or down, so does the number of its representatives. Today, the House has 435 voting members and 6 nonvoting delegates. Representatives are elected for a term of two years. Every two years, all 435 House seats are up for election at the same time. There are no limits on how many two-year terms a representative can serve.

The Senate has fewer members – 100 senators. Each state is represented equally with two senators. Senators are elected for a term of six years. Every two years, there are elections for the Senate. Only one-third of the senators are up for election at a time. As with members of the House, there is no term limit for Senators.

The executive branch enforces the laws Congress passes. The president is the head of this branch. Article II of the Constitution describes the president’s many powers, like dealing with foreign policy. The president also proposes laws to Congress and is commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Article III of the Constitution sets up the judicial branch. It creates the U.S. Supreme Court and allows Congress to create lower courts. The Supreme Court is at the top of the legal system in the country. There are nine members, or justices, of the Supreme Court. They listen to cases and give their decision. Lower courts can use these decisions in their own rulings.

The Supreme Court has an important power called judicial review. Judicial review allows the Supreme Court to look at the actions of the other two branches and decide if those actions follow the rules of the Constitution. The justices are chosen by the president and approved by Congress.

What It Means to Be a Citizen

As U.S. citizens, our rights fall into three main categories:

  • The right to be protected from unfair government actions
  • The right to be treated equally under the law
  • The right to enjoy basic freedoms

Due process is a right guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. The amendment states that no one shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Due process means that the government must follow certain rules before it takes a right or freedom away from a citizen. For example, a person accused of a crime has the right to a trial before his freedom is taken away.

Equal protection is a right guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Equal protection means that the law must treat all people in the same way—no matter what race, religion, or political group they belong to.

The First Amendment describes many of our basic freedoms. These include freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. These freedoms allow us to share ideas, which is necessary in a free society.

Our rights and freedoms also have some limits. For example, we cannot exercise our rights or freedoms if it hurts others or takes away their rights or freedoms.

A citizen is a person who owes loyalty to a country and receives its protection. There are several ways to become an American citizen:

  • To be born on American soil
  • Have a parent who is a citizen
  • People born in other countries can become citizens by following a process called naturalization

Citizenship comes with duties and responsibilities. A duty is something you must do like to pay taxes, follow laws, and sit on a jury when called. A responsibility is something you should do even though you do not have to. If citizens do not take care of their responsibilities, it lowers the quality of their government. Voting is a citizen’s most important responsibility.